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Happy Birthdays IBM

James W. Cortada IBM Corporation Happy Birthdays?! Yes, the company has potentially three birthdays, so which one is the “real” birthday? In 2011 IBM is celebrating its 100th birthday, a remarkable achievement for any company, but especially one in such a volatile high-tech industry as ours. But three birthdays?! Isn’t that a bit much? The birth and early histories of companies are always messy affairs for historians, and IBM’s circumstance is no exception. The company was the byproduct of several pre-existing firms established at various times in the late 1800s, ranging from Hollerith’s tabulating machine business to others that sold meat scales and time recording clocks used by workers to punch in. Then in 1911, these were pulled together into a new merged company, OK, it was an M&A deal—C-T-R—with incorporation occurring that June. That was its first birthday. For nearly a half decade one executive dominated the company, Thomas J. Watson. He came in as the general manager of C-T-R in 1914 and ran the firm after it became known as IBM, until his death in the mid-1950s. So for nearly a half century, IBMers thought of themselves as beginning their history in 1914, when Watson became their general manager and for two generations the only head of IBM that they knew. As late as several years ago, management in IBM pondered whether or not to use 1914 as the “official” birthday of the firm. Then there is the third birthday—February 1924—when C-T-R’s name was changed to International Business Machines—IBM. Even that was not a clean deal because in the years between 1914 and 1924, wholly owned subsidiaries of IBM had different names in various countries, including Watson’s on occasion. Anyone with experience in managing brands immediately understands the problems that variety of names posed and why consolidating all these various handles as close as possible to IBM made a lot of sense. So there you have it—1911, 1914, and 1924—which raises some very interesting possibilities. As a long-time IBMer I think about how much fun it would be to celebrate certainly the one at hand—my favorite, by the way as both IBMer and historian—but also (if around) 2014 because everyone likes a good birthday party and IBM is putting on a great one right now and in my dotage to put on one more logoed IBM birthday T shirt in 2024 at the nursing home. Whichever one you pick, for those interested in the history of companies, these are important events because they give everyone time to pause to reflect on what made them survive, indeed thrive, for so long and as I am seeing inside the company at the moment, a profound humility over that success as we ponder how we continue to succeed over the next century. Like all companies, we have had our good and bad times, but birthdays are about the good ones. For a company it is about understanding its cultural strengths, comparative advantages in the market, and what its obligation is to modern society. Because IBM played such a giant role in the lives of IT professionals all over the world, everyone is invited to the party. This is as much a celebration of an anniversary for our industry and all its customers as I think for one company. Happy Birthdays IBM!

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